Heavy Games on this Tiny Computers : Latte Panda

Let me show you one of my favourite new computersI own: the new version of the LattePanda alpha, an x86 Windows capable single-board Arduinocompatible computer. This gadget has been floating around gadgetYouTube for a while, for good reason.

 Let's talk about single board computers fora minute. Thanks to the maker movement and the never-endingstream of hobbyist building projects as well as engineers and designers that are usingpopular single-board computers in commercial environments, either as a prototyping toolor as a component in a final product, we live in an era where you go from well knownsingle board computers like Raspberry Pi (of which I have talked a fair bit on this channel) to boards by many other startups and occasionallylarge companies trying to get into the game either competing on price, functionality orpower. One of the angles that is a growing battlegroundfor these new computers is x86 architecture and windows compatibility.

 Most of the single-board computers out thererun ARM chips, mainly due to availability and cost. Many companies make ARM chips and there awide variety of tiers and cost levels and while Microsoft is making progress on Windows 10 ARMedition and its x86 emulation this is not even close to being on the level requiredto run something as complex as a game. If you go down the road of trying to haveactual PC or Laptop components in a single board computer your options are reduced to two companies, you become way more sensitiveto component shortages and your price and power consumption will increase severely. 

Most of the boards I have seen out there doing x 86 try to combat this issue by using older atom CPUs. The modern Atom SoC line was designed by Intelto provide full PC capabilities with very low power usage and in that sense, they canbe pretty decent. The most powerful atom out there is the x7-Z8750released back in 2016 which you can find for example, in the GPD Pocket and consideringhow often I end up using this laptop for web browsing and script writing I would say itdefinitely accomplishes that mission. 

However, it has been a while since Intel hasreleased a new upgraded laptop Atom CPU. In fact, while researching this video I discoveredthat they made “microserver” atoms with like crazy core counts and I got to get myhands on that. But since their thing is the lowest powerconsumption possible they are not exactly gaming ready, although it can perfectly do games such asPUBG Lite and can do much heavier stuff with a bit of patience even if it does not lookparticularly good. Because of their relatively small cost, sizeand power consumption intel atoms are what powers boards like the cheap atomic pi, ofwhich I have received a billion requests from viewers to do a video about but they onlyship to the US Then we have stuff like the original LattePanda. 

Both are small x86 single-board PCs poweredby the Intel Atom x5-Z8350, a quadcore CPU similar to the one in the Intel Stick v2 which I tried out for oldergames years ago, with similar varying degrees of success. Now what makes things interesting is thatLattePanda, the company that made one of those boards started a crowdfunding campaign forthe alpha, a new improved windows compatible single board computer running on an m3 CPU. I have talked about m3 a little bit before. As intel iterated trying to cover all posibleuse cases in laptops they created m3 and m5 CPUs as ultra-low-power consumptions versionsof laptop i3s and i5s and in that sense, the line seemed like a success with core m3CPUs bringing something closer to true laptop performance (way over what an Intel atom coulddo) but with TDPs as low as 5 Watts which make them ideal for the smallest of laptopsand in that front they had a great deal of success most notably showing up in the Macbookin early 2016 and the updated Macbook in mid 2017. That last MacBook was powered by the M3-7Y32the same chip promised to be inside the latte panda alpha. So the promise was clear, the power of a 2017MacBook on a very small single-board computer, and what a promise that was. 

If you have been following this channel fora while you might have seen that same m3-7y32 MacBook CPU before, as it is also in the hearth of GPD Win 2,the absolutely fantastic handheld gaming device that is my primary platform for playing indieor lighter games and that I have made a fair amount of content about and it was the CPU inside the first versions ofthe GPD Pocket 2 laptop like the one I received and that would be my prefered travel deviceif the review unit had more than 4 GB of RAM. "Wait. You have mentioned like 4 computers alreadythat you travel with. How many laptops do you actually carry around?" More than I should.

 Going through airport security is always fun. Now the venerable 7y32 has a problem... itwas released in 2017 and that was a while ago. Maybe Intel stopped producing them but sometimelate 2018 everyone seemed to start reporting shortages of this older CPU as GPD updatedthe pocket 2 to its successor: 2018 m3-8100y. This shortage also affected the lattepandaAlpha which announced the upgrade to the newest m3, with the upgraded board being the oneI received. Meaning that to my knowledge most of the boardsthat you will see floating around on videos before this one are running the older CPU. I managed to get my handson one of the updated boards, thanks to DFRobot the official distributor for Lattepanda ofwhich you can find the purchase link in the description. Great right? Newer CPU means more power and possibly animproved IntelHD right? Not so fast. There were some unexpected downsides withthis change that we should talk about.

 But we will get there. Now that I have spent a million years talkingabout CPUs let's look at the board itself. The Lattepanda Alpha is a comparatively tinyand beautiful device with laptop functionality but the jump from an intel atom means thatyou also get laptop pricing. At least if this device claims that it couldsubstitute a desktop PC it can actually get closer to deliver that with 3 USB 3.0 ports. Full HDMI output, audio jack, Gigabit internet,USB type C for power but that can be used for additional display or USB, a micro SDslot and all sorts of extra ports for an external battery or touch display. This thing is stacked considering its size. It even includes two m.2 slots for extra harddrivers or even PCIe expansion. There are two versions of this device forsale with the same specs and ports with the only difference being an internal memory,so if you get the cheaper one you will have to rely on something external to store yourOS. 

You might have noticed a large number of IOpins on the sides. This betrays the actual intended use of thiscomputer, which is being a sort of super-powered maker board for experiments. In fact, under the fan is the same microcontrollersfound an Arduino Leonardo which can be controlled from the Arduino program in windows. Also under the fan is the newest 8th gen m3,and when you compare to the older model on paper it does seem like a great improvementover the older generation in terms of CPU and at least the same in terms of GPU... If it weren't for the memory. So, the older m3 latte panda alpha sported8 GB dual-channel 1867 MHz and the new one has 8 GB of 1600 MHz single-channel. That is a cut on base speed and going singlechannel on top of that. Ouch. I will be the first one that points out thata lot of people online, at least in gaming, will overestimate the effect RAM speed willserve on game performance on low-end devices... With one exception.

 I have talked about this a lot lately afterLTX but on integrated graphics, such as this device, there is no dedicated VRAM and partsof the RAM are used as VRAM. If the RAM is slow then you can run into performanceissues due to memory bandwidth which will likely be the case for this device so if laterin this video you see game performance that is lower to what you have seen in other videosabout this device... it is likely going to be this memory bandwidth issue. Now what I believe happened is that when them3-7y30 started becoming difficult to find and they were forced to upgrade this meantspending more on the CPU which meant that something had to be reduced to keep the sameselling price and in that sense, I very much understand the decision. If I had been in the position of their engineerswhen faced with the problem and it was between using slower single-channel RAM or cuttingthe ram to something harder to use like 4 GB or cutting some other functionality thechange in RAM seems like the right choice. After all, this is not a gaming intended deviceand you can get a lot more functionality from maintaining 8 GB of RAM at all cost. 

Also, they probably did not have a lot oftime to implement the change, considering how so many places within the OS still reportthe wrong CPU. And to be honest that single channel changeis pretty much the only thing I personally did not like about this device and I am absolutelyin love with everything else that I can do using something so tiny. Which gets me to gaming. It might have not been intended for it butwe are going to try anyway. Before heading there. Let's do a few hardware adjustments. Predicting performance on any low power consumptionchip just based on specs is a nightmare because it will often depend on the configured TDPor its temperature. Often with this sort of gadget if you arelucky there will be an option on the bios to straight-up change the TDP which meansthe device will get hotter but you will get extra performance, as is the case with theGPD Win 2. For the LattePanda alpha, such an option isnot there, although we do get some options regarding when the fan starts and stop whichI imagine will be useful for certain projects but not as much for us. I will leave it on the one fires it up fastersince it is really not that loud anyway. 

However, we get some leeway on increasingperformance thanks to the Intel Extreme Tuning Utility. This program is often used by overclockersand tweakers to play around with their voltages and clocks speed and while we do get a reducedset on options on a device like this we can still do improvements. I am looking in particular at the Turbo BoostPower and Time Window. Most modern x86 CPUs can boost their clockstemporarily to a higher level as long as temperature and power consumption is kept under control,which is what Intel calls Turbo Boost. Increasing the Time Window to the max getsthe CPU turbo-boosting as long as possible and increasing the power is a replacementof sorts for increasing the TDP, as it increases the TDP the chip can scale to while boosting,and this makes a huge difference. While the CPU will still not reach its maximumspec speed it will still boost pretty high. With a problem, it makes the device very hot. This time we have the advantage that thisis a table device rather than something you hold with your hands so we can get a bit crazierthan what I would find comfortable on a GPD Handheld but still, the small fan is likelynot designed for this sort of hit. Which is also why I used the offset to undervoltthe CPU a bit. 

Undervolting can be a bit of a hit or missprocess and is usually a matter of seeing how much you can drop the voltage and stillget a stable computer when stress testing. On this matter, I was able to offset the voltageby about 0.09 volts. 0.1 would mostly work but would bluescreenoccasionally in some high-stress scenarios. If you decide to undervolt this or any devicekeep in mind every chip will function a bit differently and to do some research beforeyou engage. With these changes, we are ready to roll,and for starters this machine can be an excellent indie or 2D gaming console with titles likeCuphead working perfectly on 720p with no issues. But let's try something outside the normalrange. Like 2016's Doom, which is interesting forseveral reasons: The Intel UHD on this m3 is compatible with Vulkan so we can make useof its absurd level of optimization and you can turn off shadows with one console command. While this game is likely very affected bythe slow memory the performance is still pretty good at lowest settings, 720p, 50% resolutionscale and shadows disabled. The game at least maintains 30 FPS at theworst, and I am pushing here as hard as it will go so this is a fantastic result. Let's look at CSGO, at first using the veryheavy benchmarking community map at the lowest setting and a custom resolution of 960x540with a decent average of 53 fps which seemed consistent with my experienceon actual gameplay. Just close of a cool 60 FPS.

 Keeping that esports vive going, here is rocketleague. But do not allow this initial performanceto fool you. Rocket League is part of several games thattend to continue loading even after the game has started. This is not noticeable on most capable CPUsbut leads to a huge spike of CPU usage that draws the entire performance of a match down until it is finally loaded and the game goesback to normality. Here I am playing on 720p lowest settings,and while I could not quite reach 60 FPS the game was fluid enough for an entire matchto work and be as fun as always. Now Fortnite is a bit of a mystery for severalreasons. In my experience, Fortnite tends to be decentlywell optimized for IntelHD GPUs and not particularly CPU heavy... although the large map can causesome bandwidth issues, especially when looking at large parts of it. 

While performance, in general, was fine andalmost to acceptable levels there were some issues in loading that consistently causethe game to fail to load full detail assets. While I wish this was something one couldcontrol for performance improvement this seemed like either a memory issue or a hard driveissue (which is a bit unusual because the name had never caused issues loading fromthis hard drive on any other PC). I was not able to exactly diagnose what happenedhere, so put a pin on that because I will finitely return to this on a later date. GTA V was another very, very interesting casestudy. While this game is a bit old for modern standardsit has never-ending popularity and its still incredibly demanding system requirements,especially in terms of GPU and VRAM bandwidth which makes it a fantastic test. For this benchmark I am running 720p, %50resolution scaling and shadows disabled using the configuration file and it does much betterthan I expected. Here is the thing though I have covered GTAV several times in the past. Don't watch those they are terrible and Ihad no idea what I was doing. 

And since then I have realized that I barelytalked about the ways you can control the level of detail on this game simply by changingthe configuration file which can lead to an extreme graphical reduction but potentiallyincredible performance gains in limited environments like this one. Heck, this computer is perfect for that soI will probably return to this for a more in-depth GTA V video in the upcoming months. Before that, a couple of other interestingcases. The first is Wolfenstein 2 the New Colossus. This Vulkan game is a heavy shooter, so Itend to use it as a great torture-test for integrated GPUs and at minimum settings, %50resolution scale and 960x540 with Shadows Disabled using the console tweaks from itsvideo it does way better than I expected in an intense combat scene. Hell, I would say it is almost there. The other almost there case which is interestingto observe is Overwatch. Overwatch is very GPU optimized but a bitmore CPU heavy than many other shooters and in a controlled training environment withlowest settings, it would do just fine but would have a very obvious stutter thatwould not go away during actual play no matter the FPS limit that I would set. 

While this is usually a sign of lack of CPUpower I have personally gotten this game working much better on much weaker CPUs so... thereis room here for more experimentation and tweaking. Which we will get to because as previouslymentioned this m.2 slots have PCIe access, meaning that with a simple and cheap adapterit would be relatively trivial to add an external GPU to this thing. Which is why Linus already did it, and ETA Prime did it TWICE. But both of those were using the older versionof the board, which means this one should provide betterCPU performance and a dedicated GPU would be able to sidestep the VRAM memory bandwidthissue and more importantly, with the correct low-end GPU would make fora janky but small and fully capable PC that would probably fit in a hand luggage makingthe ideal low-spec setup for the next conference LAN party which isveeeery tempting. But as you might have noticed this video isgetting kinda long so I will save that for the exciting next part of this saga.

 Join us "soon" as I create my next mini Lanparty PC which will be my main machine for those events, for playing overwatch, maybesome YouTube watching and of course enjoying content on Curiosity Stream, one of my favorite streamingservices and the sponsor of this video. Curiosity Stream is a service founded by JohnHendricks, the founder of discovery channel that addresses our lifelong quest to learn,explore, and understand by providing some of the best documentaries and non fictioncontent I have ever seen from some of the biggest names in science. My recommendation this time is Speed whichis super interesting look at throw the technology of transportation has evolved together withour desire for adventure. I can’t remember why I started watching,but it is the sort of thing that once I begin I could not stop watching for an hour. And yes, Curiosity Stream works on browser,phone, TV, etc so you can get comfy to enjoy its content however you like. 

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